Effective reproduction management helps farms increase efficiency in their programs. Matias Stangaferro, DVM, Ph.D., operates Dairy Health & Management Services in Lowville, NY. He presented “Managing Reproductive Programs” as a webinar hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s PRO-DAIRY program.

“What we are doing is trying to put some magnifying glasses on the cows to try to figure out some similarities or differences to group them. Because we are reproductive physiologists, we put the magnifying glasses in the cows’ butts,” he quipped.

He said that focusing only on that aspect of reproduction misses many more opportunities to optimize a reproduction program. He prefers grouping cows by first lactation or two-plus lactations.

“Their requirements are different,” Stangaferro said. “The first lactation cows are still growing and have different nutrition requirements. The fertility is different. Well-managed first lactation animals are typically most fertile. If they’re not well managed, this could be the worst group for fertility.

“All of these differences allow us to apply different types of management. We can start differentiating these two big groups based on this biology. This is not a new concept. I’m just trying to get targeted repro management applied to the farm,” he continued.

Stangaferro wants first lactation cows bred between 69 and 75 days and two-plus lactation cows 10 days later. Delaying the voluntary waiting period (VWP) helps ensure that these experienced cows are ready for breeding again.

With the first-time cows, “because these cows are open, we can use prostaglandin because there’s no risk of abortion,” Stangaferro said. “After the second service, we don’t know if the cow is open until after preg check.”

“The other big difference is the time we have to synchronize those animals. We have at least until calving to synchronize the cows.”

Two-plus lactation cows need to be inseminated as soon as possible after pregnancy check – a minimum of 28 days after first breeding – so a very long protocol won’t work.

“That cow will be rebred around 60 days after the first breeding,” Stangaferro said. “In general, when we evaluate a farm, one of the most common concepts is the first service is more fertile, but it depends on management.”

On typical farms, greater than 75% of the cows in heat are bred. Stangaferro said it’s not uncommon for farms to experience a low insemination rate if they operate with a short VWP.

“With a longer VWP, it’s more common to see higher rates in pregnancies after services,” he added.

Farms that breed cows by heat detection also have a shorter VWP.

Managing reproductive programs promotes farm efficiency

Breeding cows all the same would streamline the process; however, it doesn’t account for the variety among individual cows. Photo by Deborah J. Sergeant

“When you evaluate repro or you have to apply different repro protocols, these four big groups is where we start and then we can go into more targeted strategies,” Stangaferro said. “The way I’d like to see that is two big groups: first services and two or subsequent; and within those, younger and older animals.”

Still, it’s not a set of hard-and-fast rules about breeding protocols. Applying different management and remaining flexible as one evaluates individuals within the group offers “an opportunity to improve management,” Stangaferro explained.

The VWP, health, nutrition, body condition score, cyclicity, protocol and genetics all matter.

“Cows that become sick during the transition period lose body condition score and have greater difficulty,” Stangaferro said. “That is also associated with lower ovulation and cyclicity.”

Genetics also matter and can influence these traits, as well as the animal’s health.

“If that cow is less healthy, there are fewer chances for her to get pregnant,” Stangaferro said. “If a cow meets these requirements, she’ll have better body condition scores. Cows that are too fat have greater risk of metabolic disorders that affect reproduction.”

He wants more farmers to select cows based on a variety of factors, not just milk – such as fertility, wellness, calf wellness, production, fertility and longevity, milk quality and calving.

“If we start at 33 days in milk, we have only 57% of the cows cycling,” Stangaferro said. “If we have a longer VWP, we have 79% of the cows cycling.”

Breeding cows all the same would streamline the process; however, it doesn’t account for the variety among individual cows, nor the needs of individual farms.

“There is not a unique recipe that works on all farms,” Stangaferro said. “A really good protocol can work really bad on some farms. We have to determine what we’re good at.”

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant